Lowering Emotional Arousal

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Highly charged emotions make it difficult for us to think clearly, to hear and understand what is being said to us, and to communicate effectively.  It is useful to learn and practice some simple techniques to keep emotional arousal under control.

7-11 Breathing.  This is like other forms of deep breathing eg yogic breathing.  A key feature, however, is that the out-breath should be longer than the in-breath.  One way to achieve this is to breathe in for a count of 7 and out for a count (at the same rate!) of 11.  The in-breath should go right down into the diaphragm, and the shoulders should be relaxed but not move.  A minute or two of such breathing has a physiological effect, releasing oxygen into the bloodstream, which is automatically calming.  The precise figures are less important than the ratio, so 3/7 or 5/9 breathing is also effective, and people with good lung capacity may be able to go above 7/11.  This is a useful techniques to practice daily, and to use before stressful situations, as well as when you are feeling aroused.  It is also quick and easy to show to other people.

The “12-second” trick.   Intense negative emotions are triggered in a part of the brain called the amygdala, whose function is to scan for threats to our wellbeing, and trigger the fight/flight (ie anger/fear) response.  In many contexts these responses are inappropriate, and worsen the situation.  When our brain is affected by a new stimulus (eg when there is a sudden bang), it responds by a surge of attention, known as the “occipital spike”, and it is during this surge that the amygdala checks out the situation.  This spike only lasts about 12 seconds before fading away (assuming the stimulus is not repeated).  People who respond very emotionally to certain stimuli (eg people who get very angry on trivial provocations) can learn to “contain” the response until the spike has faded.  One way of doing this is to count or say the alphabet backwards, or learn and repeat a tongue-twister (silently if necessary!).  Some people even visualise the spike and watch it die away.  Anything that keeps the “thinking” brain engaged long enough to let the amygdala quieten down will work.

Separating off the emotion.  Our emotions are triggered in parts of the brain which are not very accessible to speech, and so it can be difficult to name, describe, or even recognise the emotion.  Strong emotions can feel as if they come from nowhere, and overwhelm us.  It is helpful to consciously recall times when you have felt a strong emotion, and to identify how different emotions feel in your body, and what thoughts they trigger in your head.  If this emotion had a colour, what would it be?  If it had a shape, what would it be?  If it were an animal, what would it be?   What name can you give it?  All of these approaches help you to give shape and substance to an emotion, and to gain some control over it – you can, for instance, imagine the colour fading, or the shape contracting or softening, or the animal falling asleep, or you can think something like “oh do be quiet George!”  These techniques may sound quite childish, but they are remarkable effective.

Rehearsing.  We talk a lot about the “reflective practitioner”, but we also need to be “prospective practitioners”.  When we are facing a situation which we can anticipate will arouse strong emotions, it is very helpful to “rehearse” it in our heads – what might happen; what might you feel, what might the other person feel?  If you anticipate feeling nervous, angry, or upset, it will help to recall times when you have felt confident and calm.  You need to really focus on how confidence and calmness feel in your body, and then, holding on to those feelings, imagine yourself dealing with the new situation.   This will “prime” your brain to associate those feelings with the new situation.

Social work is an emotional activity, and there is nothing wrong with feeling anxious, sad or even angry on occasion.  However, you owe it to yourself and the people you work with to learn to identify, respect and manage emotions, so that you continue to respond effectively and minimise the stress on yourself.